Non-binary identities have attracted a lot of media lately. While I am grateful for increased representation, I cannot help but notice that some of these public conversations are oriented towards cis audiences and don’t necessarily center non-binary voices. Insider discussions amongst my peers tend to focus on how awkward it is to define ourselves by who we are not, how the term “non-binary” itself can defy description, how much of queer theory manages to be inaccessible (and thus useless) to us, and how our racial identities and gender identities go hand in hand.
I visualize my gender lightly hugging the topography of my physical body. I recently binge-watched Altered Carbon, and seeing one consciousness wear different “sleeves,” including the occasional “cross-sleeve,” held a lot of emotional resonance for me. I exist to inhabit myself fully and passionately, to consolidate lessons from past lives into my current form, and to practice radical authenticity in every space. For this, I do not have to agree with my gender assignment or binary gender.
A friend My friend Yaya Atta Bailey once posed the question: “What if I told you that no black people get to be cis in the context of white supremacy (especially AFAB folks)?” Chasing cis-ness feels false like backhanded compliment. Empty like a hungry belly. Elusive and always–always–conditional. I am a daughter, I am a son, and a multiplicity of souls that travel through me on a regular basis. Acknowledging this reality has given rise to embodied habits. Some of them serve me well. Others, less well.
Almost seven years ago, I pursued a legal name change with the help of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund’s The Name Change Project. I chose Dominic for my first name because it has the same meaning as my birth name but animates rather than disgusts me when I hear it spoken aloud.
Cinnamon, my middle name, comes from a distant relative. I grew up studying photographs of her in my grandparents’ basement. They captured a swagger I wanted for myself.
I also changed my last name to reflect the profound influence of my matriarchal line. I sought power and respect, and it is a testament to my choice that my first name even in its shortened form does not diminish me. I wanted rise from the ashes of my birth identity as someone who is healing significant childhood and adult trauma.
I am not so naive as to think a simple name change will replace the dedicated work I need to do to experience post-traumatic growth, but it has given me the confidence to hear my body’s wisdom and act on what I know. My chosen name is a delight to hear, to say, and to write. It is balm in three syllables.
I have a relatively high speaking voice, and uncontrollable acne put a halt to my testosterone trial before my voice had a chance to drop, but I love to sing. Singing helps me shift into a lower vocal register. When I sing along with contraltos like Tracy Chapman, Meshell Ndegeocello, or Toni Braxton, it sounds as though my voice is so deep and so heavy I’m dragging it across the floor. It’s everything.
I craved more of an outlet, so I joined Audre Lorde Project’s newly formed secular choir. At least once a month I engage with other people who look like me and are invested in making liberation music. We began working on an arrangement of “I Need You to Survive,” which is incredibly poignant given the present political, social, and economic climate gender variant people of color live and die in.
The choir is not the only step I’m taking towards vocal androgyny. I just learned that The NYU Speech Clinic has a free Voice and Communication Modification Group for the transgender community that may be able to help me identify and achieve my voice goals. It is a setting where I am likely to feel vulnerable, but a free workshop is an almost irresistible draw.
Now for the decidedly less triumphant part of my story. I hate my chest. After surviving sexual violence in my late teens, I started taking psychotropic medications for an underlying mental health issue. It took time to get the correct diagnosis and find a combination that was right for me. I experienced difficult effects of the medication, including weight gain, and my chest size ballooned.
As of this writing, I wear a 36 GG brassiere. Part of the harm doer’s focus was my chest. It is psychologically scarring to have a constant, ever growing reminder of that unwanted attention. It is challenging to participate in physical activity. I often have low back pain. When I lift my chest, the skin is red and inflamed. I avoid full body photos; my chest swallows the whole picture.
I tried to bind thinking it might ease the dysphoria. I endured a lot of discomfort and was never satisfied with the results. Commiserating with my struggle, a my friend Azure D Osborne-Lee remarked: “Past a certain point binding is like trying to hide a bread loaf underneath your shirt.”
Top surgery seems a bit too drastic for me. I don’t want a male contoured chest. However, I desperately want a reduction. I can’t afford it. I literally “put a pin” in the idea of surgery by getting a nipple piercing. In my fantasies I picture lying under anesthesia and the clink of my jewelry hitting a metal basin as the surgeon prepares to operate.
A mentor once said: “Your vision should excite you. It shouldn’t be on your back.” I truly resented it at the time. I thought visions were necessarily unforgiving and my personal happiness (at least in the short-term) was the price of changing the world. I wanted to change the world and yet, was afraid to say, do, or be things that would keep me on my growing edge. I recognize the need to change. I now know that I must have joy or else the urgency of the work will overtake me.
I mean to “show up and show out!” I look to people like Angel Haze, Grace Jones, and Ashleigh Shackelford as conscious molders of gender identity. I am inspired to outline a 10-point program on building certain habits around my vision for my gender identity:
I develop my own vocabulary around my gender.
Although I find the term non-binary underwhelming, I’ve used it out of convenience. There are other terms I’m starting to favor, including one friend Yaya Atta Bailey’s term “trans androgynous” and MicahHobbes Frazier’s “mixed gendered.” I’m also toying with the idea of identifying simply as a shifter.
I trust myself.
I know myself better than anyone. I do not allow others to define my reality.
I reserve the right to protect my emerging understanding of my gender.
I don’t have to prove myself or disclose anything to anyone before I am ready. My gender is valid, even if it is messy.
I establish intimacy through authenticity.
My gender identity used to be a subject mostly too painful to contemplate, because I already was different in other ways, I hesitated to alienate the few people in my life. As I age, it occurs to me that I don’t love anyone so much that I am willing to disown parts of myself for the sake of preserving a relationship.
I modify my body as I see fit.
This has taken the form of tattoos, piercings, and changes in hairstyle and color. I am hoping to gain access to gender affirming surgery (i.e. chest reduction).
I am a good steward of my body the way it is today.
I am working with my therapist on understanding the impulse to self-harm through work and food and sex and drugs.
I embrace the “magnificently ugly.”
I have been shaped by the disability justice work of Mia Mingus. I am turning towards the “ugliness” of being fat and disabled in a culture that values the thin and able-bodied. Sometimes I just want to be attractive, but I am trying to take Mia’s advice and be magnificent.
I allow myself to mourn paths not taken.
I did not have this language until college and it wasn’t until my late twenties that I realized I fell outside the binary. By the time I had the desire for and access to hormones, I was an adult. Even if I had continued hormones, I probably would have had to accept that I would not look like Tiq Milan. I’m still actively grieving for the puberty I always wanted and never got.
I believe in the power of sacred adornment.
My good friend has a business called Armed with Compassion, selling mala bracelets with affirmations to support self-love. They made me a custom bracelet using stones that they believed are specifically associated with my guardian. My affirmation is “My innate energy is powerful, and I can direct it wherever power is needed.” I wear it for that extra bit of protection.
I build community with other non binary people.
I have cultivated relationships with people that have eased my loneliness and given me the courage to stand in my truth.
It has taken me weeks to write these words. I was terrified through all of it. I’m still terrified, but I must believe something beautiful is waiting on the other side of my fear. May I remain faithful to this belief. May I lean on my own magic for strength. May I occupy my head, heart, and hands with the work of transformation no matter how brutal or costly. May I die and die and die. And live and live and live.
Image via Getty